Since Tuesday our eyes have been on and hearts set ablaze for Antoinette Tuff, the school bookkeeper who courageously talked Michael Brandon Hill out of going through with a shooting rampage at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia. In deflecting Brandon Hill from going forward with the shooting, she not only saved the lives of hundreds of school children and adults but she showed many what faith looks like, even in the midst of fear. Antoinette Tuff was courageous, which is a testament to how she got over, but it also shows how everyday, faithful people can be agents of change. Here are some lessons gleaned from her courageous and faith-filled actions.
1. “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela
Tuff is honest about being terrified during her interaction with Brandon Hill. She has no delusions of superhero grandeur. But instead of letting that terror stunt her ability to respond in crisis, she worked through it. In connecting with that feeling of terror she may have also connected with Brandon, a young man whom we have some reason to believe felt some terror of his own and was fearful. Here we see Mandela’s words in action, indicating that courage is not the absence of fear but triumph over it. It is okay to acknowledge fear but after that we must push through it with courage.
2. The tools we need in a time of crisis are sometimes within us.
In an interview with WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta, Tuff said that she reflected on a current sermon series on anchoring that her pastor is preaching to help her engage with Brandon Hill. She remembered how it taught her how to console people who are bereaving and, through this reflection, she discerned that Brandon-Hill was a young man who was hurting and in need of care. Sometimes we think that we need particular credentials in order to affect change in someone’s life–and sometimes those credentials are necessary. But at other times, we have what someone needs within us, be it a scripture, a sermon, or as we will see in the next lesson, our story.
3. Our story could pull someone else through, if we are willing and able to share it.
Following the reflection on her pastor’s sermon, Tuff mentioned that she shared her story with Brandon Hill. Tuff recently lost her husband of 33 years—the only man she has ever known, has a son with multiple disabilities, and a daughter who is preparing to head to law school. Given this, she felt like she was at a low point and that nobody loved her, but last year she experienced a turning point and shared with Brandon Hill “Life can still bring about turns but we can live from it, in spite of what it looks like.” Upon hearing this, Brandon Hill began to open up to her, confessing that he hadn’t taken his medication and sharing his concerns about the consequences for the crime he was considering committing. Brandon Hill didn’t completely surrender at that moment, but he was comforted and calmed through the realization that there was someone going through similar struggles. Tuff reminds us that we never know how our stories might connect or change someone else’s life and we have a responsibility to share that story. As some might say, “Our testimony is not our own.”
4. Make your judgment but decide to give people the benefit of the doubt.
When Brandon Hill came into the administrative office at McNair Tuff’s stated, “He had a look on him that he was willing to kill.” He stated as much as he warned Tuff and her colleagues that this wasn’t a joke and had Tuff announce the same over the school intercom. But rather than treat Brandon Hill like a common criminal, she treated him like a normal person or, better yet, her neighbor. She seemed to espouse Jesus’ second great commandment in Mark 12: 31, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (NRSV)” Despite what she knew Brandon Hill was possible of, she chose not to let that define the way she treated him. This too is our responsibility, to not let our behavior be dictated by who someone is or what they have done–or will do, but be guided to love them because of the common humanity we share and the fact that we are all created in the image of God.
5. Be humble.
It seems that Tuff has been humble from beginning to end in this situation. She is not interested in being called a hero; rather she wants to give God the praise. It is through God’s grace and mercy that Antoinette Tuff believes and knows she “got over.” It is that humility that guided her through it, acknowledging that this might not have been something she could do on her own. It is that humility that is taking her through the countless interviews and making her a living testimony of what faith in the midst of fear can do. Tuff’s humility leads her and us to God and reminds us that God is with us, working through and among us. We may not always see it or understand it, but God is still working.